What’s Rome got to do with it? UW presents a seven-hour reading of “The Octavia,” a still-under-construction play by Anne Washburn about Nero, Seneca and what we can learn from past power brokers.
Seven hours might sound like a long time to sit through the reading of a new play that still isn’t finished — but “The Octavia,” a theatrical epic by Anne Washburn about power-players in ancient Rome, might be just the theatrical interlude we need before Inauguration Day on Jan. 20.
Even before Donald Trump officially became the president-elect of the United States, major newspapers began comparing him to Rome’s more infamous leaders. A quick tour of the headlines: “Trump’s Potential Conflicts Have a Precedent: Berlusconi’s Italy” (New York Times, Dec. 1), “Is Trump a Berlusconi? Or more like Mussolini?” (Washington Post, Dec. 4), “Donald Trump: the modern-day Nero ready to burn down America?” (The Guardian, June 10).
Washburn, a Guggenheim and PEN award winner, has been in residence at the University of Washington working on “The Octavia” since October. The play is a long-form study in politics and folly among people who once stalked the halls of power in Rome: Nero, his murderous mother Agrippina, his young wife Octavia and his tutor, the Stoic playwright Seneca. Though it’s still not finished, “The Octavia” will have a one-day-only, marathon presentation at the University of Washington on Jan. 8, from 11 a.m. to roughly 6 p.m. (For more information, or to request a seat, call 206-543-5140 or visit uwdramalabs.com.)
by Anne Washburn. Sunday Jan. 8, 11 a.m.- roughly 6 p.m., Penthouse Theatre, University of Washington, Seattle; free (206-543-5140 or uwdramalabs.com).
Washburn is perhaps best known for her work with The Civilians — a celebrated, New York-based “investigative theater company” that uses interviews, research and found material to generate plays — and “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play.”
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“Mr. Burns,” a three-act, gallows-humor story, imagines a post-apocalytic world where the retelling of one episode from “The Simpsons” begins as a campfire pastime and evolves, over a few generations, into a ritualized, Wagnerian-level performance. It had an early-stage workshop at Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2011 and a full staging at ACT Theatre in 2015.
Washburn borrows material from every section of the proverbial library — science, pop culture, folklore, economics, Euripides — and is one of those rare playwrights who can weave the weight of history with the urgency of the present.
If you’re wondering how to think about this moment in history, and what the past can teach us about it, Washburn might be the perfect tutor.